(RFE/RL) -- In the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein played a curious double game.
For years he had permitted arms inspectors into the country to verify he had no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) following the 1990-91 Gulf War. Yet, at the same time, he obstructed their work until -- in frustration -- the arms inspectors left in protest in 1998.
Hussein's obstructions led many to believe he was hiding an active WMD program, even as inspectors found no solid evidence he actually had one.
By the time he let the inspectors return in late 2002, it was too late. Washington was convinced and, in early 2003, overthrew him -- only to find no convincing evidence that a substantial WMD program existed.
Why did Hussein maintain a charade that ultimately led to his downfall? The answer is: Iran.
I had to convince the Iranians that I had that capability. And the way to do that is to make my own generals believe.
Mike McConnell, the outgoing U.S. director of national intelligence, said this month that Hussein pointed to Iran when he was questioned about his WMD strategy following his capture in December 2003.
McConnell, who is the designated leader of the United States intelligence community, said the interrogators asked Hussein, "Why did you cause your own people to believe you had weapons of mass destruction?"
Hussein replied: "You don't understand. I have Iran on my border. I had to convince the Iranians that I had that capability. And the way to do that is to make my own generals believe."'Playing A Game'
McConnell recounted Hussein's answer while speaking with journalist Charlie Rose, the host of a syndicated U.S. television public affairs program, on January 8.
McConnell said Washington believed Hussein had a WMD program because intelligence agencies gather information by listening to people, or watching the behavior of people, who are engaged in a suspect activity.
"We listened to generals and colonels talking about things," McConnell said. He added that at the time, no one knew that Hussein "was playing a game. He was trying to convince those around him that he had them."
And, McConnell said, Washington had a "predisposition" to believe because it knew Hussein previously had used one weapon of mass destruction, nerve gas, on his own people.
Hussein was executed in late 2006 and Washington's worries about weapons of mass destruction have shifted to Iran. Tehran is locked in a showdown with the international community over its nuclear program, and its refusal to stop enriching uranium -- which at high levels can be used to produce nuclear bombs.
McConnell said he personally believes that Iran wants to build a nuclear weapon. That is because Tehran is enriching uranium, has a missile program, and "had a program for weapons design and covert enrichment previously."
He added that the global intelligence community believes Tehran will have a nuclear device at some time between 2010 and 2015. He said his personal estimate is 2013.
But McConnell said there is no positive proof that Tehran is in pursuit of nuclear weapons. And for this reason, the intelligence community has yet to try to present a body of evidence.
And the U.S. intelligence overseer said Washington's experience with Hussein's alleged WMD program has made the government cautious about acting on appearances and beliefs in the new crisis over Iran.
McConnell described the lesson of Iraq for Washington this way: "I have to have positive proof, and we have disciplined ourselves in a way that we weigh the evidence, so that we never make that mistake again."
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